WASHINGTON -- The special Senate election in Texas today is a political test of sorts for Ross Perot, one he apparently is going to fail.
When Perot organized his "volunteers" as United We Stand, America (UWSA) after capturing 19 percent of the vote in the presidential election last year, the billionaire independent raised the possibility that his group might be a force by endorsing and helping candidates in other campaigns.
But Perot and his followers have been no factor in this campaign to choose a replacement in the Senate for Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen.
UWSA has sponsored some candidate forums, but it has pointedly avoided throwing its weight, if any, behind a candidate. The same has been true of Perot himself -- despite the fact Texas is his home ground and thus the place he might be expected to have the greatest influence.
The result is that conventional politicians have been able to fight it out as Republicans and Democrats. The ballot lists 24 names, all the candidates from all parties, and the two leaders in the voting today will meet in a runoff June 5.
Perot's refusal to test his direct clout has been made even more striking by the fact that he has resumed his television campaign to establish himself as the feared critic of the status quo -- in this case, the administration of President Clinton. And it has been made more glaring by the fact there is a prominent Perot supporter from 1992, Dallas businessman Richard Fisher, running as a Democrat.
Like Perot last year, Fisher has presented himself as the candidate against the establishment and lobbyists. And, again like Perot, he has based his campaign on his own money, somewhere between $2 million and $3 million spent largely on television commercials. But unless the opinion polls and the judgments of Texas political operatives are totally mistaken, Fisher has little or no chance of making the runoff.
Even if Fisher were not to be blessed, Perot had the option of choosing among the other candidates, almost all of whom are using a Perotesque message depicting themselves as outsiders. The putatively leading candidate, appointed Democratic Sen. Bob Krueger, has been basing his campaign on his decision to take a 20 percent pay cut and a vague plan to "audit" the federal government.
If Perot wants to demonstrate clout -- as his return to television suggests -- the most impressive way to do so would be to prove he can lead his volunteers behind another candidate. The fact that he is not doing so obviously will raise suspicions among other politicians that Perot followers are less of a threat than they might have feared.
Absent Perot or any national issue of moment, the campaign here has turned into a referendum on whether Republican state treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison whacked a one-time employee with a notebook binder. The evidence suggests that the charge, made by a supporter of a Republican rival, Rep. Jack Fields, has backfired and helped Hutchison by making her appear the victim of sleazy politics.
The latest opinion poll here found Hutchison running even with Democrat Krueger, each with 27 percent of the vote, with Fields, Fisher and Republican Rep. Joe L. Barton trailing for a place in the runoff.
The story in Texas may be the weakness of Krueger, who had been expected to lead the first primary comfortably as the candidate of Gov. Ann Richards and the Democratic Party establishment. If Hutchison runs ahead of or even close to Krueger, she will be the favorite to win the runoff next month.
What has been lacking in the campaign has been any serious discussion of issues the new senator will confront. On the contrary, until the slapping allegation appeared, the campaign was getting little attention from either the press or voters. This has left perhaps one-third of the likely voters undecided in the final week of the primary.
Given that vacuum, Ross Perot might have been a factor if he had been willing to take the risk of involvement. But he chose instead to spend his money on another national television program bashing Bill Clinton. Now the question will be whether he is willing to get his feet wet in the runoff campaign. If he doesn't, he will be a far less frightening figure than he has been.